In West Virginia, Mayor Set Off a 3-Day War Over a Christmas Parade

November 30, 2019 0 By NIKESHOE

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — The first shot was fired in the middle of the afternoon in early October, back when the Appalachian leaves had barely turned orange and store shelves were lined with Halloween candy.

It came in the form of a nondescript event announcement on the city’s official Facebook page.

“The Charleston Winter Parade will begin at the corner of the Kanawha Boulevard and Capitol Street,” the post read.

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For years, the city has put on an old-fashioned “Christmas Parade” each December in downtown Charleston. Marching bands, firetrucks, Shriners in their tiny cars and Santa in his red sleigh wind through the city streets with children chasing candy flung from floats decked out in holiday themes. Now, without any notification of a name change, officials were calling it a “Winter Parade.”

Charleston’s 72-hour war on Christmas was on.

Mayor Amy Goodwin didn’t see her decision to rename the parade as a war on anything. She thought the move would signal that this capital city situated along the Kanawha River was a place for people of all faiths and cultures. It was the same impulse that drove her when she first took office at the start of the year to invite Christian preachers, a rabbi, an imam along with people of other faiths to say prayers before City Council meetings. Renaming the parade was an extension of that open-door spirit, she believed.

“I wanted to show that Charleston is a welcoming and inclusive city,” she said.

That is not how many Charleston residents saw it.

“The new mayor needs to be voted out if she does away with the Christmas parade,” read one comment on the initial Facebook post. “Christmas is all about Christ, not some winter parade.”

A local lawyer and newspaper columnist, Mark Sadd, said he didn’t understand why the mayor needed to show the city as more welcoming. It wasn’t like there were a lot of complaints.

“A Christmas parade is about as inclusive as we can get,” he said.

Some people thought renaming the parade was an attack on Christianity and traditions held dear in a city of 48,000 that feels more like a small town.

But for some, it hit at something deeper. Replacing “Christmas” with “winter” was a shot against a way of life that had already changed so much in recent decades as the coal industry in the region collapsed, jobs in chemical manufacturing disappeared, shops closed and large numbers of people moved out of town altogether, leaving a place so different from the one longtime residents remember from their youth.

Across America, the mention of “Christmas” in holiday greetings and decorations has become another measure of political divisiveness.

Schools and government buildings have replaced Christmas trees and nativity sets with holiday lights and reindeer. Starbucks is just saying “Merry Coffee” this year.

President Donald Trump has weighed in on several occasions with his support for the traditional seasonal greeting, occasionally casting his electoral victory as a seasonal win, too.

“I told you that we would be saying Merry Christmas again, right?” he said at a 2017 speech in Missouri.

‘A Collective Groan’

In the hours after the mayor’s announcement, it seemed to many residents as if Charleston was going the same direction they believed Starbucks had — waging an assault on the holiday, and one that could affect the grades of 12-year-old trumpet players, a small and longtime community of Muslims, and Christians marking the season in poinsettia-lined pews.

City Council members learned about the name change the same way as most every other resident — from the Facebook post. Did we vote on that, asked Courtney Persinger, so sleep deprived from nighttime stirrings by a new infant he briefly wondered if he somehow missed an action by fellow council members.

But Goodwin, a Democrat, had launched the change unilaterally, unaware of what she would unleash. Word about it quickly spread that day in early October, across Facebook and Twitter, church sanctuaries, classrooms and dining rooms.

People in the overwhelmingly white, Christian city talked about an insult to “the almighty Supreme Being.” Some said they had stopped watching NFL games when players protesting police brutality and racial inequality knelt during the national anthem. Now, they felt a similar sense of revulsion about the parade name change.

“The community reaction was a collective groan,” said Steve Roberts, president of the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce in Charleston, explaining how a simple name change could elicit such outrage. “It’s a cute little parade with cute little kids, and can’t we just have a Christmas parade?”

Caitlin Cook, a City Council member, got a call from her parents. “What’s going on?” they demanded, trying to grasp what was behind a decision to tinker with tradition. Other constituents were calling and texting with similar questions. Cook didn’t know what to tell them. She supported the move — she thinks Charleston needs to signal it’s a welcoming city — but was caught off guard by it.

The first afternoon when the name change was announced, Brandon Willard, a junior high band teacher, was scrolling through his phone at John Adams Middle School watching the negative comments about it pile up on social media. He recognized some commenters’ names as parents or relatives of his band students.

Willard thought about his musical selection for his students in the parade this year: “Sleigh Ride.” It was secular. But with all the outcry, Willard worried that parents would pull their children in protest and leave him lacking enough musicians to play it.

That would be a big disappointment to the students, who march every year in Santa hats and with decorated instruments. Willard had even ordered light-up necklaces for this parade. The parade also counted toward their grade. Concerned about the fallout on his band, he tracked down the principal.

“We are going to need to have a plan,” Willard told him.

The whole city seemed to be talking about the name change. An idea circulated to boycott the event and instead attend the Christmas parade in nearby South Charleston. The issue came up at the church youth group attended by Goodwin’s 15-year-old son. He arrived home that evening and assured his mother all the teenagers supported her.

“You’re totally good on this,” the mayor recalled him telling her.

But outrage continued to mount. People pored over the rules put in place by the shopping mall that sponsors the parade. One stated that religious-themed floats were banned. That rule had been on the books for years, officials said, but amid the anger over the new parade name it took on new meaning and inspired a new round of vitriol when people started sharing it on social media.

The next day on the city’s largely African-American West Side, Rev. Matthew J. Watts kept bumping into congregants from his Grace Bible Church who were upset about the mayor’s decision. He didn’t like it either. The small black population in Charleston has long felt shunned by government officials, Watts said. This was on another level. This time it felt like the mayor was shunning Jesus.

To Watts, who has lived in Charleston for 41 years, it was a painful reminder that America was becoming more secular and that the Christian church was losing the influence it once had.

“I’m a traditionalist, and I grew up with a strong background of celebrating the birth of Christ,” he said.

Goodwin was busy with a packed agenda. There were “7,000 kids in foster care, people dying every day from opioid overdoses,” as she put it, plus the normal tasks of mothering two teenage boys. She recalled being in a meeting at City Hall when a staff member approached her and calmly explained, “There’s some pushback on the parade.”

She had been in office barely 10 months. Her election had already brought about major change: She is Charleston’s first female mayor. And unlike the last mayor, who served for 16 years, she wasn’t a lifelong community resident. She was raised in Wheeling, 180 miles away.

“She didn’t come to Charleston until I was 45 years old,” said Goodwin’s mayoral predecessor, Danny Jones.

Jones, a Charleston native, who said he moved away only long enough to serve in the U.S. Marine Corps in the Vietnam War, rarely missed a Christmas Parade when he was little. The city center back then was a miniature Chicago, he said. Sparkling shop windows were lined with toys that he would try to convince his mother to buy for their Christmas tree. Shoppers with bags hustled along crowded sidewalks downtown.

“Now,” he said, “it’s not so much.”

On a recent afternoon, sidewalks there were almost empty. So was downtown’s Town Center Mall, which sponsors the parade. It has just one anchor store, J.C. Penney, after Sears and Macy’s moved out, leaving darkened windows across from the Frosty Forest display where Santa will greet children.

To Jones, Goodwin represents a more progressive, and a more urban, way of life, not the small-town one that is so familiar to him.

“To want to change the name of the Christmas Parade is very urban,” Jones said. “It’s a big city thing.”

For the Republican state Senate president, Mitch Carmichael, it was a liberal thing. Late on the second evening of the battle of the “winter parade,” he released a blistering statement in opposition to the name change.

“It is clear, these radicals have no interest in our Christmas traditions or in following our United States Constitution,” Carmichael said. “We are calling on Mayor Goodwin and her liberal allies to end this madness and allow our citizens to freely and fully exercise their Freedom of Religion with a CHRISTMAS PARADE.”

The Republican state attorney general, Patrick Morrisey, piled on, turning to Twitter to call the mayor’s decision “political correctness run amok” and telling her to “reverse course.”

The state Capitol, just a few blocks away from Charleston’s City Hall, had itself been the site of controversy earlier this year. In March, on “West Virginia G.O.P. Day,” when party members set up booths inside the Capitol dome, a group calling itself ACT For America displayed a large poster depicting Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., the first Muslim woman elected to Congress, juxtaposed with the burning World Trade Center.

A fracas broke out over the display.

The incident, said Ibtesam Sue Barazi, vice president of the local Islamic Association, “gave us the most heartache.”

Barazi, who has lived in Charleston since 1975 when she arrived from Damascus, Syria, said she thinks anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant rhetoric has been on the rise since the 2016 presidential election.

“People have been given a right to declare their hate,” she said.

When Barazi heard about the parade name change, she welcomed it as a sign the mayor was trying to heal wounds and make Charleston a more inclusive city. The parade name, though, had never stopped her from bringing her children to watch the police kick off the parade and to marvel at the floats.

A New Strategy for the Season

For two full days, Hoppy Kercheval had been hearing about the name change at the studio where he broadcasts Talkline, a popular statewide morning radio show. He sat down to write a story for the station’s website.

“Was this really a problem? Was City Hall deluged with taxpaying citizens who viewed the Christmas parade as not inclusive?” Kercheval wrote in the column posted shortly after midnight. The decision, he argued, “has created a division where none existed.”

By early morning of the third day after the announcement, Fox News had picked up the story.

The criticism exploded onto a national stage, and allies of the mayor decided to show her their support.

Rabbi Victor Urecki had welcomed the parade name change as good for Charleston, home to about 250 Jewish families. Still, as a minority here and in other communities where he has lived, the rabbi had long ago learned, he said, that “there are certain things you grow to understand that’s the way they are, certain things you’re not going to push too hard on.”

“I texted her and told her I’m with you whatever decision you want to make,” he said.

The mayor phoned him back to tell him she was considering retreat. By 10 a.m. on Oct. 10, the third morning after the announcement, Kercheval’s radio show had become the theater of war.

Jones, the ex-mayor, phoned in to demand Goodwin reverse her decision. Two hours later, Goodwin herself called in with an announcement.

“It has been an amazing process, an enlightening process the last two days,” she began. “I will say the type of vitriol, the kind of vitriol that has come forth since we announced this suggested change has actually been really hurtful and disappointing. But let me say this: I respect everyone’s individual freedoms to bring that to my doorstep.”

The Winter Parade was no more, she said. The Christmas Parade was back on.

“Everybody is going to be happy again,” Kercheval told her.

And for the most part, it seemed like everyone was.

People wrote supportive comments on the mayor’s Facebook page, thanking her for changing her mind. “I appreciate a politician that listens. Well done!” one comment said. Jones praised her for the reversal. So did the attorney general. Muslim community leaders said they appreciated the mayor’s efforts, regardless.

“We and our Jewish brothers and sisters as well, we will continue to support it. We respect the right to celebrate Christmas as they see it should be. We as Muslims continue to cherish Jesus as a prophet,” said Barazi, from the Islamic association.

But some were still grumbling, chiefly a local unit of the Ancient Arabic Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine called the Beni Kedem Shriners. Every year the men hop into tiny cars or golf carts for the parade, some in clown suits, tossing candy to children lining the route. One member, a retired police officer, is a parade staple, drawing huge cheers as he wields a giant sword to a musical score.

As part of her changes to the parade, the mayor had also moved the date this year from a weekend morning to a weekday night. She hadn’t retreated on that. But parade night happens to conflict with the Shriners’ long-ago scheduled regular business meeting, said Johnny Miller, the group’s recorder.

“This will be the first time in years,” he said, “that we haven’t been there.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

© 2019 The New York Times Company